A Silent Epidemic
Loneliness affects all of us, and at every stage our of lives. For most it is fleeting but it can also take root, breeding immeasurable long-term harm on the level of the individual and to society at large. According to the Office of National Statistics (2017), the United Kingdom is among the loneliest countries in Europe – a concern which has been repeatedly overshadowed by the crisis of housing and yet disregarded as having little immediate nor obvious link to the built environment by those operating in the architectural sphere.
It is only very recently that the actual extent and impact of this silent epidemic has surfaced and started to be acknowledged at the level of national policy. If, in the words of neuroscientist John Cacioppo, the “pain of loneliness protects the social body by prompting us to change our behaviour,” it should be recognised for what it is: an all-pervasive agent which, in transitory doses, nudges us to act with more social awareness. Ever more persistent than transitory, however, loneliness—largely ignored—has developed into an impending crisis.
It is universally accepted that loneliness presents a significant risk to public health. Aside from it’s destructive implications to mental wellness, it can cause and accelerate dementia and deteriorate cardiovascular health. Observed through this lens, loneliness is just as harmful as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, and twice as harmful as being obese. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, it can suppress the functioning of the immune system, cause fatigue, and makes it harder to regulate behaviours such as drinking, smoking, and eating.
The swelling scale of the situation—a tear in the fabric of society which is expanding and, at the same time, appears to be hidden in plain sight—necessitates a more informed and alternative approach from architects and designers if the most vulnerable in society are to be protected. Greater empathy and generosity is required across the board if we might begin to forge ways to alleviate the social pressures it generates.
The built environment stands as a reflection of a society’s values. Investment must be focused on preventative measures rather than simply treating the symptoms of loneliness, it is the constellation of small, uncostly acts that make the real difference.
“Forget sex, politics or religion, loneliness is the subject that clears out a room.” —Douglas Coupland
Feelings of estrangement, difference, loss, or being misunderstood can all contribute to the sensation that you are a stranger to yourself, your family and friends, or in your own community or nation. Change is a natural aspect of any society, but it is also a key trigger for loneliness.
Loneliness is a complex issue, attributed to a wide range of sources. Increased levels of mobility within and between countries appears to be atomising society and families, contributing to the shifting DNA of both. As a direct result, a greater turnaround of residents is liquefying communities, making it more difficult for individuals to forge and maintain roots in the places in which they live. The acceleration and shifting forms of communication technology mean that pockets of the population are struggling to keep pace, while educational programmes are seemingly few and far between. Exacerbated by an ageing population, this has resulted in more people living alone for longer. Antisocial behaviour in deprived areas is conspiring to alienate people, leading to self-barricaded homes and fear of social integration.
Although important and necessary, urban renewal can disrupt people’s patterns of living and by displacing their established roots; the often neglected repercussions of change is the severing of connections that have managed to seed and flourish. The likes of newsagents, parks, allotments, and pubs—each typically underappreciated—all contribute to a healthy urban landscape in which habitual social interaction and neighbourliness is part and parcel. If architecture is currently part of the problem, it must form part of the solution.
Learning too often “fails to travel,” in spite of the fact that it is regularly published and publicised (Campaign to End Loneliness). By examining a public health issue through an architectural lens, a finer-grain understanding of how our cities currently and could operate will be encouraged. In presenting, forging and enacting real-world collaborations, the questions of connection (and disconnection) between people and place will be brought to the fore. Architecture is not just about providing shelter; when created with a human eye, coupled with consideration and generosity, it has the very real power to lift the spirits of both individuals and communities.
“The most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” —Kurt Vonnegut